The first is Curt Schilling. I want to talk about two aspects of his greatness which I think have been underrated. Everyone knows about the postseason heroics and the strikeouts and the shutouts. but it’s the unearned runs are the secret to his greatness. Curt Schilling allowed the fewest unearned runs (65) of any pitcher with over 2500 innings pitched in baseball history. His ratio of runs to earned runs (1.05) is the lowest of any pitcher in history with significant innings pitched.
What this means is that Curt Schilling is more underrated by ERA and ERA+ than any other pitcher on the ballot. By ERA+, Schilling’s career (3261 IP, 127 ERA+) looks very similar to his contemporaries like John Smoltz (3473 IP, 125 ERA+), Kevin Brown (3256 IP, 127 ERA+) and Mike Mussina (3563 IP, 123 ERA+). However, if Schilling had allowed the same number of runs to score but allowed unearned runs at a typical rate rather than his historically stingy rate, he’d have had about a 132 ERA+.
Read on for historical comparisons…
Kevin Brown, a reasonably great pitcher in his own right, is a fun comparison here. Brown and Schilling have nearly identical career numbers based on earned runs. However, Brown actually allowed 172 unearned runs while Schilling allowed just the 65. So Schilling was not terribly similar to Brown in his career run prevention, he actually prevented about 100 more runs. By RA+, Kevin Brown threw 3256 innings with a 22% better than league average rate of run prevention, while Schilling threw 3261 innings with a 32% better than league average rate of run prevention.
When you look at runs allowed, you see that Curt Schilling was actually the greatest pitcher of his modern cohort. He’s not Pedro Martinez or Randy Johnson, but after them he’s the first pitcher I’d choose to start a ballgame in some secret magic baseball time mirror, and he’s the first I’d put on my Hall of Fame ballot.
The pitcher who starts to show up as a comparison for Schilling when you make the UER adjustment is Bob Gibson. Gibson threw an extra 450 innings more than Schilling, though in a low-scoring era when innings were easier to come by. His 130 ERA+ in 3722 innings looks not dissimilar from Schilling’s adjusted 132 ERA+ in 3261 innings. The two greatest postseason pitchers of their times, both clearly qualified on their regular season performances alone, were also quite similar in their overall run prevention in the regular season. The modern-day Bob Gibson is certainly an obvious Hall of Famer.
Now, one objection that could be raised here is that unearned runs are about luck. The defense made an error, so the pitcher didn’t deserve to be credited with the run. In fact, though, there are different ways of pitching that lead to more or fewer unearned runs allowed. Far more errors are committed on ground balls than on flyballs, and of course almost no errors are committed on strikeouts. If you rack up huge numbers of strikeouts and induce a high rate of flyballs, you’ll allow fewer unearned runs. And of course that’s what Schilling did. He pounded the zone with a four-seam fastball, avoided walks and risked allowing the occasional home run in pursuit of Ks and easy pop-outs. Kevin Brown, one of the most notable sinkerballers of his generation, gave up a much larger number of unearned runs because of the higher rate of errors on groundballs. (Derek Lowe, as a comparison, has already allowed 138 unearned runs in a career 1000 innings shorter than Schillings.)
I like to think that Schilling’s low UER rate is not just a function of his strikeout/flyball ways. He also worked quickly and almost never ran up long at-bats. He kept his fielders on their toes, as every baseball coach in history has asked of his pitchers. It’s not like Schilling was backed up by good defenses, from the 1990s Philles of “I’m not an athlete, lady, I’m a ballplayer” to the sillyball lineups in Arizona and Boston. He pitched with Jeremy Giambi in the field behind him. Jeremy Giambi. Schilling’s style of pitching, I like to think, got the best out of his mediocre fielders. He was a joy to watch from the stands or the television, and I think it’s likely he was equally fun from the perspective of the infield dirt.
He’s an obvious Hall of Famer.